ARTICLE BY: Capt Karl Falken, CAP

Washington, D.C., 12-17 March, 2015, Lt Col Alyson White led twenty-one Civil Air Patrol (CAP) members from two squadrons on a memorable tour of the nation’s capital. Twenty members of TX-179 and a cadet from TX-436 departed Houston’s Hobby airport in the early hours of March 12th bound for Baltimore, Maryland. From there they rode the Amtrak into Washington. Switching over to the Metro, the intrepid travelers rode the underground train to Rosslyn station in Arlington, Virginia where they checked into the Courtyard Marriott for the duration of their stay. Col White advised everyone to retire early after the day-long trip because the adventure in the capital would start very early the next morning.

Early the next morning the group boarded the Metro again and went to downtown Washington where they stopped briefly at the White House Visitor Center. From there they went directly to the White House for a scheduled tour that included pre-screening by the Secret Service (SS) weeks prior to the visit. The tour group passed through three layers of heavy security where I.D.s were carefully checked and rechecked by the SS Agents. The tour of the White House was self-guided and limited to the ground floor of the West Wing. Some older members wistfully remembered visits years ago when the tour included the upper floor as well.

The White House has been completely renovated, starting in 1950 when President Harry Truman had it completely gutted to begin the restoration. The old wooden beams and brick interior structure have been replaced by steel beams and reinforced concrete and the entire interior redone. Despite these major projects, the White House Historical Association has carefully preserved original furnishings, paintings and other artifacts and maintained the original floor plans, interior design and appearance. It was thrilling to look at the portraits of past Presidents and First Ladies and be only a few feet away from the chairs and tables they and their distinguished guests once sat at and talked over.

After touring the White House, the group moved quickly across the Washington Mall to the Dirksen Senate Office Building where they met with the staff of Texas Senator Ted Cruz. The large group from the home state was warmly welcomed with drinks and snack produced in Texas and two staff members took them on a tour of the United States Capitol building. Patrick Kelly and Hanna Anderson made sure everyone received passes and then rode with the group on the Senate Subway that connects the Dirksen building to the Capitol building. Once in the Capitol building, the visitors were able to see first-hand where legislation is debated and voted on by our federal representatives. From the crypt at the geographic center of the district to the chamber of the House of Representatives, all were regaled with the history and splendor of the great Republic. (Regrettably, the Senate chamber was closed that day.) Only by seeing it from within and without can one fully appreciate the vision of the 18th century statesmen who lived in the raw English colonies of the mostly uncivilized North America. Though they lead a new, un-tested nation of diverse colonies turned states, they built a seat of government that would eventually dominate the continent and significantly influence the world. It’s a small wonder that the statues of these men that grace the Capitol are made larger than life!

After the tour, the cadets with their senior member chaperones eagerly browsed in the Senate souvenir shop. From there the group divided into two smaller groups that went on informal tours of the National Mall. In the heart of the city they visited the National Museum of American History which had an inspiring exhibition called “The Price of Freedom.” This examined how wars from Revolutionary War times to the modern battles for Iraq and Afghanistan shaped the nation’s history and transformed American society. In the National Archives some were able to see the Declaration of Independence, the original U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The National Gallery of Art gave members of the group a broad introduction to some of the most famous and interesting paintings and sculptures of American and foreign artists. The National Air and Space Museum also provided a very comprehensive view of the history and science of aviation from the Wright brother’s first plane to vehicles used in manned exploration of the moon and beyond! On the 15th, the group had a double dose of aerospace education with nearly half the day spent at the National Air & Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center located in Chantilly, Virginia. This museum is so large it houses virtually every major type of aircraft including full-size jumbo jets, an Aérospatiele-BAC Concorde and the space shuttle Discovery!

Not everyone thought the monuments and museums were the most interesting things in the city though. “What really impressed me about Washington was the subway system,” said C/Maj Hunter Coolican. We don’t have these in Houston. It also caught my attention to see so many uniformed military, particularly high-ranking officers, out in public. Basically I feel like I’ve really come to our nation’s capital.”

C/SSgt Faith Marquez had another perspective on the trip, “Although we saw many interesting things like historic places and met outstanding people, these are not the things that meant the most to me. For me, the most important thing was the quality time I had with my family and friends and the relationships we built through a shared experience.”

Walking through the city in uniform, the two groups attracted some special attention. The group with Col White happened to meet highly decorated United States Air Force Lt Col Nichole Malachowski, the first female pilot in the USAF Air Demonstration Squadron, also known as the Thunderbirds. Cadets were excited to meet and talk with an outstanding pilot and historical personage from their squadron’s namesake. The other group also had an exciting chance meeting. Capt Kale LeBlanc met and introduced them to Brigadier General Gregg P. Olson, USMC, Deputy Director Joint Staff. While waiting on a street corner for his ride to arrive, the general graciously gave the cadets a short speech about the importance of informing the general public about the military, and then spoke directly with several cadets about their plans to enter the service.

This was not the first time in Washington for C/SSgt Julissa Borges, but she saw it in a whole new way. “I lived in the DC area for five years previously, but didn’t realize there was so much to see and do here. On this trip I visited the museums for the first time and really enjoyed it. I found them both educational and interesting at the same time.”

The weekend brought more opportunities to take in the culture and history of Washington. Beginning with a visit to the aerospace museum in Arlington, the group then returned to the National Mall to spend more time at the museums and cultural centers. On the 16th, the group again divided, with Col White’s group returning to the mall, and Capt LeBlanc’s group visiting Arlington Cemetery. At the national cemetery, Capt LeBlanc’s group visited the grave sites of many famous Americans from President Kennedy to Maj Audie Murphy, a fellow Texan and the most decorated soldier of World War II. They also visited the Tomb of The Unknown soldier and witnessed the moving changing of the guard and wreath laying ceremonies. They also visited the nearby USS Maine Memorial. On the way back they toured the Custis-Lee Mansion where Martha Washington’s family lived and later General Robert E. Lee raised his family.

The final day of the tour ended on a high note with a guided tour of the headquarters of the United States Department of Defense. The tour began with individuals taking a quiet and thoughtful walk through the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial on the west side of the Pentagon. Then they were checked in through heavy security to a briefing room where they were met by two members of the 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment, also known as the Old Guard. (Not coincidentally, this is the same unit that provides the honor guard for the Tomb of the Unknown Solders.) Spc Brandon Ramirez and A1C Ashley Rash were dressed smartly in their distinctive uniforms. They lead the group on a tour that went all around the inner ring of the huge, 41 acre building. They talked about both the functions and the history of the building, including an explanation of its unusual shape. The shape originated from a design intended for an oddly shaped piece of land where it was initially planned to be built. The Pentagon was not built there though, but the design was carried over to the actual site.

This was an intense learning opportunity. The fast paced tour led past both many offices bustling with activity and also numerous display cases featuring the history and personal artifacts from famous American soldiers such as General of the Army, Douglas MacArthur. The guides’ functional and historical explanations were punctuated by humorous and interesting stories such as one from the cold war where, due to the high foot traffic, Russian military experts misread spy satellite data and identified the Pentagon’s centrally located hot-dog stand as an entrance to an underground bunker. Because they targeted it for a direct nuclear missile strike, the building was dubbed “Ground Zero Cafe.”

After the visit to the Pentagon, the CAP group stopped by their hotel to retrieve their luggage and bid goodbye to the helpful and friendly staff. From there they retraced their steps to the Baltimore Airport and boarded their Southwest flight for the destination dear to their hearts, Texas!

It was a quiet flight home as the cadets and seniors reflected on what they’d seen and done, the awe-inspiring sights, rich history and outstanding people that had touched their lives.

“The thing that I take away from the trip was being with a group of quality cadets which is something I enjoy,” said C/SSgt Grace Von Hindenfalken of the Gladewater Corsairs Composite Squadron. I also appreciated being able to visit historical places and see the famous seats of government where decisions are made that affect our lives.”

“What visiting DC did for me,” explained C/1stLt Kyler Hearn, “was demonstrate in a tangible way the concepts of how the society, government and military work together. In my travels through our nation’s capital, I saw first-hand how the people, institutions and infrastructure all come together to function as one government.”

Perhaps some of them will return some day in the future to participate in governing this nation, or even leading it. Time will tell.


View a good amount of the photos in out Gallery!

A complete record of the experience in pictures and video is available on DVD from Capt. LeBlanc.


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TX-179 Thunderbird Composite Squadron, Civil Air Patrol

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